The dark arts and the real power in the land.
That claim and defence is rubbish. Journalism in the clear public interest is already protected, and if the Guardian was duly concerned, then the very journalists that got the story, David Leigh and Rob Evans, would be incredibly worried, as it was they that broke the story over BAE's Saudi slush fund, which would have almost certainly employed some of the methods that the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, wants to crack down on, as did their investigations into Jonathan Aitken in the 1990s.
Rather what bill is meant to target is the widespread use, especially by the tabloids, but also increasingly by the broadsheets, to employ private detectives who through their own contacts sell information, often from government or public services databases, direct to journalists. This all stems directly from the case of Steve Whittamore, the private detective who was raided back in 2003. When the police subsequently went through his computer, they found that he had kept exact details of every transaction with each publication, information which the information commissioner subsequently released back in December of 2006. It showed that the Daily Mail alone used his services 952 times, with almost 60 different journalists making separate requests. At Whittamore's trial the prosecution outlined that his associate Paul Marshall had used Scotland Yard's computer databases to access information for newspapers on two actresses from EastEnders, the family of Ricky Tomlinson, and a former Big Brother contestant, alongside information on Ken Livingstone and his partner and Bow Crow, head of the RMT. Despite this, Whittamore and his friend were all given conditional discharges, as a result of a previous ruling in a trial involving Marshall, where the judge accepted that he was seriously ill and about to die. Whittamore was meant to face another case brought by the Information Commission itself, but the cost to the public purse, and the fact that all the men could point to the previous trial and the sentences given there meant that they forced to drop it. They all in effect completely got away with it.
This isn't then out of high principles and making sure that investigative journalism, what little of it remains in the British press, is protected. This is so the tabloids and others like them can continue to stalk and chase celebrities and their families if necessary, and that as soon as a major crime and happens and suspects are named that they can get as much information on them as they possibly can. As Nick Davies outlines in the entire chapter on this in Flat Earth News, these are known as the "dark arts". One ex-Mail journalist told Davies that they used to use the social security computer as if it were an extension of the Daily Mail library, just having to phone their contact who would then supply the information or the persons with the same name in around five minutes time, with their home address, phone numbers and maybe their workplace. Another said that if the Mail comes after you, they'll get all your information, phone numbers, schoolmates, what's on your credit card and every call from your phone. This was probably how the Mail recently turned up at the home of Fiona MacKeown, breaking in and taking photographs of her murdered daughter Scarlett's "bedroom".
Some of this isn't of course high-tech or even strictly breaking the law. Clive Goodman, jailed after he was caught "hacking" into the mobile phone of Prince William, just used the well-known trick of phoning his voicemail and then seeing if the password was unchanged, as most are, enabling him to "intercept" his messages. Goodman went down because the charges were brought under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, not the Data Protection Act, which deals with the "blagging" offences and those involving the breaching of databases. This measure was really about bring the punishments into line, and upping the costs of getting caught so that there's far more of a deterrent. Getting a conditional discharge or an "unlimited" fine won't stop private detectives that have been raking in hundreds of thousands of pounds through such work, but a prison sentence will.
It's little wonder then that the Mail and Sun groups are so opposed to this measure. It threatens their incredibly lucrative phishing expeditions which so contribute to their celebrity exposes and who's shagging who nonsense which arrives on Sunday mornings. One of Gordon Brown's dearest friends just happens to be Paul Dacre, so much so that Brown has even given him a review to overlook. As for the Conservatives, the editor of the News of the Screws at the time of Goodman's offences, for which he too had resign was none other than Andy Coulson, now their chief spin doctor. Aside from protecting the privacy of celebrities and those caught up in events beyond their control, this is another reason to oppose the continuing obsession with databases across government and public services sphere. The amount of information that'll be on the ID card database has journalists and private dicks drooling already, as will the Spine, the NHS database that'll have the records of every patient on, not to mention ContactPoint, the children's database, which might have celebrities' children omitted from it, directly because of the fear of that information being sold on to the highest bidder. It just does go to continue to show that those who have the most power in Britain are not the politicians themselves, but the media barons and their editors who have obsessions with crime and criminals, except when themselves commit it in the pursuit of a good story. The information commissioner had little chance when coming up against them.
Chicken Yoghurt - Newspapers and personal data: a level playing field at last
Labels: abuses by tabloids, Associated Newspapers, celebrities, dark arts, databases, Flat Earth News, journalism, News International, Paul Dacre, Richard Thomas, Stephen Whittamore, the fourth estate